Frank Krämer at Altium explores how embedded development is taking on a whole new dimension as devices with a cloud-based ecosystem are changing the shape of things and how designers can used this resource to their advantage

Electronics design tool vendors have often been criticised for ­lagging the technology that they’re ostensibly charged with enabling. As devices become increasingly Internet-enabled, and depend more and more on back-end, cloud-based ecosystems to provide critical ­functionality, this criticism could ­justifiably be leveled again.

That’s not to say EDA tool companies are ignoring the cloud. Many of the chip tool vendors are actively looking to provide some design functions, such as complex verification, as cloud-based services. So indeed, EDA ­companies are looking at how they can use the cloud as a way to deliver their tools in a more cost-effective and ­scalable way. While this is, on the surface, a reasonable course of action, it really ignores the bigger issue for EDA vendors when it comes to the cloud.

It’s not really about tool vendors using the cloud to simply provide the tools and services they currently offer in a better or more efficient way. The real game changer comes in the broader product development arena, and it will happen when the tool ­vendors ask themselves one simple question: How can they use the cloud to help their customers design for the cloud, and not just design the devices that connect to it?

Electronics designers today need tools that allow them to harness their device design experience and extend it to the design of device ecosystems. What’s needed is a unification of device and web applications development within a single tool framework. When we start to apply the power inherent in connecting devices and applications to web-based services and infrastructure to actually developing new, Internet-connected devices, we’ll see the ‘Internet of things’ really start to take shape.

The cloud-based design for all

A simple example of the power of device-to-cloud connectivity is the way Amazon’s Kindle book reader system synchronises itself across ­multiple platforms. Regardless of which device you use- Kindle for PC, Kindle for iPad, the Kindle device itself- when you open any device you’ll be ­presented with the last page you were reading, regardless of which device you were last reading it on. Amazon uses a person’s Kindle account in the cloud to transparently synchronise this information across all devices in the ecosystem.

Now Amazon is a large company with huge resources available, so it has the ability to push through the development of such a system with the tools currently available by gathering together hardware, software and web development teams, each working within their ­individual realms of expertise.

But imagine if cloud connectivity and a range of cloud service building blocks and templates were standard parts of an electronic product ­developer’s design tool. And imagine if the design environment on the designer’s desktop was part of a larger, cloud-based ecosystem that provided automatic hosting and deployment services (among other things) that allowed designers to connect the devices they design directly to the cloud and utilise services they create.

With such a system, even developers with limited resources could bring the potential of cloud-based services and functions directly and easily to their products and the people using them.

The shape of things to come

One could argue that the entire history of solid-state electronics has been one of unification. Multiple transistors were brought together on a single piece of silicon. Functional circuit blocks have been combined to create large-scale integrated circuits. Software has been unified with hardware to create programmable platforms.

At each stage, the technology and the tools have evolved to raise the level of abstraction at which we can work. It’s this principle that has allowed us to achieve the many orders of magnitude increase in system complexity in the relative short lifetime of the industry.

Today we’re reaching another technological turning point, and once again we need to unify processes and evolve the tools in order to progress. A number of companies and products have demonstrated the power of ­connecting devices to web-based ecosystems. Increasingly, this cloud connectivity is automated and does not require human interaction. As we move forward, cloud connectivity will be a necessary part of all devices across the spectrum of markets from consumer and industrial through to military. This will happen because the potential of ubiquitous device connectivity is too great to ignore, similar to past state changes such as the digital and embedded software revolutions.

For engineers and designers this will mean changing their mindsets to incorporate online components directly into the hardware and embedded design process right from the start of a project. For tool providers it means finding ways to utilise the cloud to provide ‘plug and play’ access to online services, real-time connections into supply chain and manufacturing information via the web, and an expanded definition of design components to include functionality provided remotely to hardware devices via back-end, online ecosystems.

Whichever way you look at it, electronics designers and engineers are headed for the cloud. The real question is, when they get there will they be able tap into that silver lining?

Frank Krämer is Technical Marketing Director of EMEA at Altium Europe Altium